Don Owen got his start in the tire business back in the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until two decades later that he struck out on his own and founded Don Owen Tire. The business began in the mid-’80s as a tiny operation with humble beginnings. Personal values aligned with business values and inevitably, remarkable partnerships formed. In fact, it wasn’t too long after founding Don Owen Tire that Don made the trek over to tire industry mecca, Monroe, Indiana. Monroe was (and is) home to the Zurcher family. It was in that little town during a casual conversation over a cup of coffee that Don sealed his future with Paul with a handshake.
Yes, that Paul. Paul Zurcher. The man who partnered with hundreds of entrepreneurs throughout his 90+ year life. The man whose legacy lives on through Best-One Tire and his family. What Nike is to footwear and what Mustang is to horsepower, Paul Zurcher, Best-One and Don Owen are to tires.
Today, Owen Tire with two locations in Bloomington, Illinois, remains family owned and family run. After talking with second-generation business owner, Bob Owen, you get the feeling that three decades in the business seems like just the beginning. When he’s not slinging tires, he’s slinging rope at the rodeo. Bob is the kind of guy you’re glad to know, like a handshake actually means something. His word is his bond and I don’t think he breaks his word for anything or anyone. I like that about Bob and I think you will, too, as you read through our interview below.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bob and learn more about the business that bears his family’s name. In our wide-ranging conversation, we talk about everything from how his Dad started the business all those years ago, to ag tire technology, to the difference between a farmer and a crop producer. (And yes, there’s a difference.)
Q: Tell me about Don Owen Tire.
“We’re a second generation company. We have great business values and started from nothing in 1986 to 27 service bays in two locations today. Reputation is incredibly important to us and we do our best to live with a servant’s attitude. Having strong family values reinforces that. We care about our community and give back. It’s a cliché to say that we have the best service, but we really do strive for that. We are the only tire business with two locations in Bloomington. We’ve always done our best to develop and maintain strong mutual relationships with our vendors and be good stewards for our other competitors in town. One thing that dad always said is that you take care of your customers and your customers take care of you.”
Q: How did you get started in the tire business?
“Dad was in tires before I was born. I grew up around tires and the industry. I used to enjoy going to work with Dad whenever I could and whenever he would let me. Some of the guys helped me to learn to drive a forklift. I’ve been around it all my life. Dad later saw it best to go into business for himself. His reputation within the community and with farmers helped him get started back in 1986. My brother and I started with Dad and we also had one other employee. By 1994, we were still growing and trying to keep up with amount of workflow so we bought a few empty lots and added another building. We acquired a second location and leased it from Firestone in 1994. I don’t know how Mom and Dad kept their hair – and their sanity!”
Q: What excites you about being in the tire industry?
“There will always be a need for what we do. Over 32 years of being in business, lots of people have had lots of ideas to put us tire dealers out of business. At one point, there was even an effort to sell tires through grocery stores. People still rely on us and need us to be here for them. From a business perspective, things are always changing. Having enough passion and again, a sense of accountability to take care of our customers is always important. The tire companies don’t lay dormant. Bridgestone is coming out with six new tire lines by August or September. Nothing ever stays the same, especially with Bridgestone. They’re trying to better themselves and that’s an inspiration because that’s something we’ve always tried to do ourselves. We put in the effort for the sake of continuous improvement. We want to be proactive. We really got our start with Firestone, Mastercraft, and Michelin. They put a lot into R&D, especially in ag tires, and Firestone is an industry leader. That’s evident when you look at Columbiana [Ohio] and look at what they do to put their products to the test. Firestone shines head and shoulders above the other companies. Farmers are cost conscious, but they pay for value and for quality.”
Q: Which brands do you trust most for your customers?
“Firestone is our No. 1 ag brand. If it’s not a Firestone, it’d be a BKT because the quality is there and it gives our customers a nice product at a lower price point. Being in business for 32 years, we’ve found that there are plenty of other brands that don’t have that same quality. There are some younger companies that are trying to gain share and it’s up to us to put our customers into brands that we can trust. We also work with other brands, including Alliance, a little in Titan, and a few others.”
Q: How has tire technology changed over the years in your opinion?
“We seem to have a lot fewer warranties. The majority of failures we see come from misapplication, customer neglect and lack of tire maintenance programs. If maintenance is done correctly, 90 percent of the time, tires will go the distance. What I’m glad to see in the technology is lower rolling resistance and a quieter ride. The only downside is that they’ve cut into the traction ability.
“On the ag side, I believe IF (improved flexion) and VF (very high flexion) are incredibly important. Farmers are educating themselves more and more to the point that we can’t really call them farmers anymore, but rather ‘crop producers.’ They’re educating themselves more. They’re putting more of their time toward understanding chemicals, fertilizers and seed technology. Some of this technology has allowed for higher load-carrying capacities and larger footprints as the equipment gets bigger.
“When I think about a farmer, I think about the guy who does a little farming on the side. He might harvest winter wheat, lives in a white two-story house, etc. Today’s crop producers are not your stereotypical farms. These are industrial operations. These are producers. Farming is so much more sophisticated now and the equipment is really specialized for specific applications.”
Q: What does it mean to you to be part of Best-One Tire?
“It’s always been a company that allowed us to have our own identity. Now that it’s into the third generation, some of those things are changing a little. We can exercise our own character in our community. Don Owen Tire has been a household name in our area since 1962. Best-One wants us to have our own identity, and they coach and guide us as independent business owners.
“I carry with me Paul Zurcher’s values cards that emphasize the Best-One core values. Live with character, integrity and passion. Live with the urgency of accountability and change. Urgency is what we preach to our team. There are probably 40 places in town to buy tires. Why do people come here? People do still want excellent service.”